Gbenro Adegbola is the Managing Director Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers) Ltd. He holds a BA, (Combined Honours), in Dramatic Arts and Literature in English from the then University of Ife and MA Language Arts, (Ibadan 1984). As a tech. enthusiast, he remains committed to exploring digital publishing and its applications to the educational sector in Nigeria.
Can you give us a brief background on yourself?
Married with two kids (one of them is actually an adult now!) So, talking of kids will not be appropriate.
My wife is a Lawyer by training but she works in School now. I Attended the University of Ife and graduated BA, (Combined Honours), Dramatic Arts and Literature in English in 1981. I have lived almost my entire life in Ibadan, except for those 4 years I spent in Ife!
I am number 3 in a family of 4 children. Both my parents were basically teachers. My mother a secondary school teacher and my late father, for many years a priest maker, teaching in a Divinity school. Towards the end of his career, he moved back into mainstream ministerial work and academic work. He was a multi-disciplinarian, and his academic interest ranged from theology to development economics and sociology. He was fairly well sought after all over the world. I give this background to highlight that I grew up in the midst of books.
When did you first realize you wanted to go into publishing? And what drove you toward this career path?
I never wanted to be a publisher. I wasn’t a particularly career aware child. But I always had an entrepreneurial sort of mind. My mother wanted me to be an academic; her words (said in Yoruba) you must earn every degree your father earned. You know how a woman can put an idea in your head and make you believe it originated form you! But alas, I couldn’t proceed beyond an MA (Language Arts, Ibadan 1984.) I guess I wasn’t smart enough! Then she thought about the next best thing and arranged for interviews at a publishing firm where she once did some freelance editorial work as a teacher. Eventually, I found my way into publishing quite fortuitously while investigating the market for a magazine project.
What do you like to do in your leisure time?
I read. Sometimes am reading as many as three books at a time! I also think a lot. And my thinking can be intense. So much that I sometimes go through months when I am just not focused enough to concentrate on reading. Or rather, when am totally focused and consumed by an idea of current flavour. By the time am through with thinking about an idea, I have it all worked to the minutest detail that it doesn’t welcome input from others. This is constant source of irritation for my colleagues at work! I played fairly decent golf for a few years but I’ve been off it for some time. Although I still love the game. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a game on my iPad called FIFA 2012. Absolutely awesome! Except that my family complain they can’t get my attention once I start.
You are an accomplished player in the Nigerian publishing industry, having held top positions in Spectrum and Bookcraft before moving on to Evans. What has been your recipe for success all along especially given the relatively precarious nature of the Nigerian publishing industry?
I am not sure I can truthfully talk about any accomplishment, not to speak of a recipe. But I can talk of a greed for good publishing and an almost reckless entrepreneurial daring, which over the years has produced many spectacular failures and a few (even if I say it myself) outstanding successes. Fortunately, these successes have somehow managed to even out the failures plus a bit more.
As a publisher with over two decades of experience in the publishing industry, what do you think are the ingredients needed for a publishable manuscript?
Quite frankly, I don’t know. For me, it’s sometimes a hunch and sometimes a gentle nudging from respected minds. But I think, a manuscript has to be well written first. Many tend to fall into the error that they are reading for correctness of English; not realizing that badly written English can be corrected! In the last ten years however, I’ve been more involved in educational publishing where the decision to publish is more data and curriculum driven. So this is not an issue I’ve had to contend with.
One of the requisite skills you have obtained over the years has been digitalization of books and the publishing process. How have you been able to apply this skill to digitalizing Evans books so to speak, especially against the backdrop of the fact that the publishing industry in Nigeria largely remains print-based?
I was extremely bowled over when the iPad was released and it set me thinking. Shortly after this, I got tangentially involved in an e-reader trial project that was being done in Ghana. These combined, sparked my interest, along with the developments that were taking place in the telecoms world; the various submarine cables and the potential those held for improving internet speeds to proper broadband levels and for digital publishing.
Shortly after Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola became governor of the state of Osun, we did a corporate marketing presentation before him and some of the ideas in our presentation coincided with his own ideas. So we were asked to provide e-books for the Opon Imo (Learning Tablet) project. As a result of that, the entire Secondary education list has been digitized. We really have not done digital publishing on a commercial scale as the digital infrastructure is not full there yet. One of the projects am working on, is building in association with some technical partners, a Content Management System which will serve as “gateway” for that kind of book commerce. Ideally, I should be doing this outside of my present job. It’s a whole new area and in a large organization such as ours; it’s not always easy to get a buy-in to such highfalutin ideas. I’ve been thinking seriously about this and it may well be the path I will choose.
The general perception in Nigeria now is that, ever since the late 80’s, Nigerian publishers have shifted to the publication of textbooks and other academic works. The few who still publish fiction content themselves with publishing children’s storybooks. Do you share this perception and if so in what way do you think this trend has contributed to the decline of Nigerian literature?
Publishing of general interest books have really not recovered since the collapse of the Nigerian economy, post the profligacy of the Shagari years. Prior to then, there was a thriving economy and it was possible to publish a varied list. People had the disposable income to feed their leisure interests; be it book, music, movies etc. I was involved in the publication of a string of bestsellers during this period. After the collapse and the resulting Naira devaluation, even the publication of text books went into a long period of depression till the late 90s. The relative political stability of the last decade or so has given the Publishing Industry in Nigeria a chance of recovery which is only now being consolidated.
So, it’s not just a perception, it’s a reality. The prescription/recommendation factor in Educational books has meant a life saver for the industry. There a number of publishing houses that still valiantly do fiction and other general books with impressive success. I salute the courage and resilience of all such.
What future do you see for e-books in the publishing industry in Nigeria with regard to the current trends in the western world?
It’s the future, really. When you consider all the handicaps to effective book distribution in a space like our and how e-publishing surmounts them, you find in e-books a more efficient and cost effective means of reaching your audience in a space as large as Nigeria. My prediction is that in two years this will become more popular; once the broadband service providers are able to overcome the so called last mile problems. However, I don’t believe that e-books will ever totally replace print books.
What challenges are publishers in Nigeria facing presently and how do you think they can be best surmounted?
All sorts: the most serious is the lack of what you can call a publishing ecosystem. Distribution is a pain, viable bookshops are few and far between and then there is the lack of respect for protection of intellectual property rights. This results in a high incidence of book piracy. Close to 30% of the industry’s turnover is in the hands of pirates. But I am a believer in the sentiment that great challenges inspire alternative solutions. We’ve had to create a network of super booksellers to surmount the distribution issues and partly also to tackle piracy. In some cases, we actually deliver the books to the end users, bypassing all the links in the traditional book chain!